Main Engine Cut Off

T+124: Gateway Logistics Services, FY2020 NDAA, and Small GEO Satellites

NASA put out a draft RFP for Gateway Logistic Services, the House Armed Services’ Committee weighs in on the US Air Force launch contracting drama, and a new company building small geostationary satellites has emerged.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 40 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Heather, Tommy, and six anonymous—and 247 other supporters.

The Search for the Small GEO Sweet Spot

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews:

Executives who previously worked for fleet operator ABS of Bermuda have formed a new company focused on building small geostationary satellites.

Saturn Satellite Networks will build satellites ranging from 600 kilograms to 1,700 kilograms, and already has a customer order, Tom Choi, Saturn’s executive chairman, told SpaceNews.

They’re joining companies like Astranis in trying to find the sweet spot for the sizing of new small geostationary satellites. Astranis is working on satellites around 300 kilograms, so Saturn starts out a bit higher than that and ends at a much bigger size.

Of note to me is that Firefly’s Alpha with its new Orbital Transfer Vehicle can carry a single small-end Saturn bus or just about two Astranis satellites all the way to geostationary orbit on its own.

That could be a hell of a package offering.

T+123: The Noosphere of Influence

NASA made a series of announcements about their ISS commercialization effort and the first Commercial Lunar Payload Services missions, and Firefly unveiled their Orbital Transfer Vehicle. And there’s a really interesting connection between all three stories.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 40 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Heather, Tommy, and six anonymous—and 243 other supporters.

Thanks to May Patrons

Very special thanks to the 285 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of May. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, and it’s your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 40 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Heather, Tommy, and six anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and join the crew of supporters and producers!

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T+122: National Security SpaceX Lawsuit

NSSL, LSA, OMG! Last week, SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the US Air Force over the Launch Service Agreement development contracts. We’re mere months away from bids being due for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 launch contracts, so I figured now would be a good time to take a step back to explain what these programs are, why they matter, and why SpaceX is filing this lawsuit at this moment in time.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 40 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Heather, Tommy, and six anonymous—and 251 other supporters on Patreon.

Air Force Revising Promotion System, Opening Pathways for Space Officers

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

In her final two weeks in office, Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein are expected to roll out a plan to introduce a new promotion system that breaks up the pool of eligible officers into six “competitive categories” — air operations and special warfare; nuclear and missile operations; space operations; information warfare; combat support; and force modernization.

Having a competitive category for space would effectively create an Air Force space corps, and officers would only compete against space officers for promotions. In the current line of the Air Force system, pilots generally get higher ratings because promotion boards tend to reward officers who commanded units in the field and had multiple combat deployments.

This would be first major change to the Air Force’s personnel system since the service was created in 1947.

Gee, I wonder what it is that is making them get around to this in 2019, rather than decades ago.

T+121: Artemis, Blue Moon, Starship, and Politics

NASA and the White House released a summary of the FY2020 budget amendment this week, alongside the new name: Project Artemis. I talk through some political fallout, what the future may hold, and the chaos elements that are Blue Moon and Starship.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 40 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Heather, Tommy, and six anonymous—and 249 other supporters on Patreon.

Artemis

The Moon 2024 initiative finally has a name, and it kicks ass—Artemis. That came yesterday as the White House released a summary of its budget amendment for Artemis. The amendment is for $1.6 billion above the $21 billion request made previously, and breaks down like this:

  • $1 billion for a human lunar landing system
  • $321 million less for Gateway, descoped to only propulsion and a habitat/transfer node
  • $651 million additional for SLS/Orion (as yet unexplained)
  • $132 million for “exploration technology” (whatever that entails)
  • $90 million for what seems like additional payloads to the lunar poles before humans land there

This is obviously going to kick off all sorts of Congressional drama, as now this heads to Congress to decide what they’ll do with it. This is just about the messiest political year ever, and there’s talk of fiscal year 2020 running fully on continuing resolutions and not actually getting a budget, so that doesn’t inspire much hope.

However, there seems to be some mass cognitive dissonance that I can’t get my head around, and it comes in two flavors:

  • NASA needs to do things in new ways with less costly methods of contracting and acquisition, yet a program like this should still cost $40 billion
  • $1.6 billion is a laughably small amount, they should have requested more, and given us a 5-year total number as well, yet Democrats in Congress are sure to reject even this laughably small initial funding

Starting “small” makes sense for one reason: if you can’t even get funding to start the lander program in earnest, then the entire program is toast.

The intentions of this budget amendment are very clear—big Gateway is out, skinny Gateway is in, and we need to start a lander program. Why argue over EVA suits before you even get the lander program started?

It’s a pretty great week for that conversation, as a company with massive funding just announced a lander program of their own that is realistic and achievable on the timescales needed for Artemis. I’m even told that Orion/Gateway/etc can get into a 24-hour elliptical lunar orbit (lower than the 6-day NRHO), and that from there, a tug/transfer stage would probably not be needed for Blue Moon.

So let’s get a contract in place for Blue Origin to develop Blue Moon in accordance with NASA standards, get Lockheed started on an Orion-derived ascent stage, and we’ve got ourselves a plan.

All that said, I think we have massive spending and budgeting issues in the US government, so that makes me nervous for any increases. Sure, this is small relative to the overall pie, but I don’t think we can go on forever like this.

And it always bears mentioning: I don’t necessarily think NASA needs more money, they need more focus. The descoping of Gateway and the focus on the lander program in the amendment does give me at least a little glimmer of hope.

Virgin Orbit Has “One Thing Left to Button Down” (and It’s Not Great)

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

Stephen Eisele, vice president of business development at Virgin Orbit, said the company was in the “final, final, final” phase in the development of its LauncherOne rocket. “We’ve got one thing left to button down” with the rocket, along with a few captive carry flights of the modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, he said, but didn’t give an estimated date of their first orbital launch.

I’ve heard some talk of what Virgin Orbit is working through, and from the sounds of it, it’s bad. Nearing potentially-losing-an-important-mission bad.

On the extreme ends of things, if they get beaten to commercial launches by Firefly, and Firefly is able to keep their price and payload as stated, Virgin Orbit could be in for some trouble.

T+120: Dr. Mike Baine, Axiom Space

Dr. Mike Baine, Chief Engineer of Axiom Space, joins us to talk through Axiom’s plans for commercial low Earth orbit space stations.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 40 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Heather, Tommy, and six anonymous—and 243 other supporters on Patreon.